Is there a cure for Long Covid?

I thought I had dodged Covid, and maybe I did.

I did have to work with students in person, but we maintained social distancing, masks and other protocols. Other than that, I almost never went out. I wore masks any time I left my house. I checked my temperature daily, sometimes more. I got myself tested in late November: negative.

Nevertheless, around the beginning of February I started feeling easily fatigued when I’d exert myself. A lot of that was shoveling snow — an incredible physical effort to start with — but by late in the month I was feeling short of breath even under normal circumstances. At the same time, my resting heart rate rose more than 20 beats per minute between the beginning of January and today, and though I’m sleeping fine, the heart rate stays high enough that, by the time I awake in the morning, I’m famished, having burned the same amount of calories while I rested as I used to do on very long walks.

It could be something else. I have other health conditions, some of which lend themselves to the same kind of symptoms Covid does. And if I did have Covid, I was completely asymptomatic — no loss of smell or taste, no fever, no days in bed. I’m currently in the midst of some tests to see what the physiological underpinnings are … or the psychological underpinnings, since I also suffer from anxiety.

Still, when I posted my symptoms to some friends, more than one wondered if I could have Long Covid, the condition usually brought on by an initial infection which then, stubbornly, refuses to go away. Much to my surprise, they could be right: it’s possible to get Long Covid even if your main case was completely asymptomatic.

This is one hell of a troubling disease.

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Sunday read: Sing a song of Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett. Photo via the Palm Springs Desert Sun/Gannett.

Tony Bennett struggles to remember.

Faces can prompt blank looks. Words don’t come easily. Events from his past — a career that’s included Number One hits, success across the decades, praise from Frank Sinatra — have apparently vanished in the recesses of his mind.

Tony Bennett has Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed in 2016, when he was 90. He’s 94 now, and though he still has many moments of clarity, the isolation of Covid hasn’t helped his condition.

But do not weep for Tony Bennett. He is actually an example of what staying active can do to keep the disease in the background. He even performed right up until last March, when Covid brought the curtain down on live performance, and his pianist, Lee Musiker, comes to Bennett’s apartment twice a week to rehearse. (Musiker succeeded Ralph Sharon, who worked with Bennett for five decades.)

Bennett is the subject of an extensive profile by John Colapinto, “Tony Bennett’s Battle with Alzheimer’s,” in the current AARP The Magazine. It’s my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: This pretty much sums it up

Image from the Washington Post.

The 88 pages of the Jan. 4-Jan.11 issue of The New Yorker contain one feature article, a 39-page chronicle of how Covid-19 went from obscure coronavirus to the colossus of death that has killed 2 million human beings as of mid-January, including close to 400,000 Americans.

It’s my Sunday read.

I know, I know. You’ve had enough of reading about Covid. I’ve certainly had enough of posting about it. But — and this means no disrespect to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong or the diligent folks at Stat — this piece was written by Lawrence Wright, a terrific writer who wrote the best book on the lead-up to 9/11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” and an excellent work on the Camp David accords, “Thirteen Days in September.” (In an eerie coincidence, “The End of October,” his novel published in May but written earlier, concerns a worldwide pandemic.)

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Sunday read: A scientist hero

Image from Cosmos Magazine.

I grew up in the 1970s, which means that my bloodstream and organs are probably full of contaminants that will take decades, if not centuries, to break down — long after they may have contributed to my death. I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of plastic, inhaled plenty of tar and nicotine, and probably consumed some radioactive heavy metals.

I’ve certainly been exposed to greater-than-healthy doses of lead (which is to say, more than zero), because until 1975, it was in pretty much every gallon of gasoline we pumped in America. That means it was also in every ounce of exhaust that our internal combustion engines produced.

But at least we’ve moved in the right direction — away from leaded gasoline. And, in part, we have Clair Patterson to thank.

Patterson, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of,” is the subject of my Sunday read.

Patterson, who was trained as a chemist but practiced geology and physics, was an eccentric. His discovery that his laboratory was infested with lead prompted him to go to extreme lengths to clean it (as well as hypothesize where the lead came from), at a time before “clean rooms” existed. And that wasn’t all.

On smoggy Pasadena days, he’d amble across the quad wearing two different colored socks and a gas mask. He went distance running when distance running was a hobby for weirdos. He didn’t look or act like a professor. He wore t-shirts, khakis, and desert boots. He refused tenure. Later in his career, he soundproofed his Caltech office and installed two doors, two layers of walls, and two ceilings. As his colleague Thomas Church noted, Patterson was like his rock samples: He did not enjoy being “contaminated” by outside influences.

This made him easy to caricature for the corporate interests — oil and auto companies — that wanted to keep their leaded fuel in the pipeline. After all, it eliminated knocking!

And no-knock leaded gasoline was a small price to pay for all that lead in the environment. After all, miniscule amounts of lead couldn’t cause that much damage. Could it? The leading lead researcher certainly didn’t think so, and nobody was looking over his shoulder.

Kehoe also made mistakes that might have been caught had his work been subject to independent scrutiny. In one study, Kehoe measured the blood of factory workers who regularly handled tetraethyl lead and those who did not. Blood-lead levels were high in both groups. Rather than conclude that both groups were poisoned by the lead in the factory’s air, Kehoe concluded that lead was a natural part of the bloodstream, like iron. This mistake would grow into an unshakeable industry talking point.

That probably sounds familiar.

Mental Floss’ Lucas Reilly shows how indefatigable Patterson was. The scientist went to Greenland to take samples, then Antarctica. He took days to test each one. What they showed was undeniable: lead contamination had risen sharply in just a few decades. And then he went to a mountain in Yosemite and made his conclusions even stronger.

Oh, we’d polluted with lead before — just ask the ancient Romans — but this was of a scale that was frightening, not to mention unnecessary. After all, we weren’t making utensils, just stopping our cars from making noise.

You should read it all. Sometimes, even against entrenched corporate interests, science (and safety) will out.

Read “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of” here.

Sunday read: Dream a little dream

Image by Alex Blajan/Unsplash, via Science Alert.

A few days ago, I thought I’d come down with Covid.

Because that’s the default now, isn’t it? Any other winter, you feel weary and sniffly, you think “cold” or “flu.” But now you think, “my mask wasn’t on tight enough when I went to the DMV” or “a stray sneeze must have been hanging around the room with those kids,” and you’re checking your temperature and your SpO2 every hour and waiting for the Grim Reaper to make his appearance.

For me, it started Wednesday afternoon. Let my quote from my social media post:

So yesterday afternoon I’m feeling a little nauseous. Could be the slightly stale cake; could be the caffeine from three cups of tea on a cold, snow-dusted day. I conduct my 2-hour GED class on Zoom starting at 6. My throat gets rough quickly and by 7:30 I just want class to end. Later, I take my temperature and check my pulse and SpO2 (because now we all have those finger devices, right?). They’re OK, but I still feel, to use the medical term, “icky.” I go to bed around 10.

I sleep heavily, as if I’m glued to the mattress, with lots of dreams. When I wake up in time for work, I still feel fatigued. Any other year, I’d go to work — again, no fever, good stats, just tired. But I call in, because not only do I not want to be sick midway down the turnpike, I definitely don’t want to risk spread (IF I have it).

(Just to update: I was feeling fine by Thursday afternoon. I still feel fine. For now. Given the overfilled hospitals and general tumult in the U.S. and A., I take nothing for granted.)

In retrospect, the most striking part of the experience — besides my panic — was the dreams. I dream often, and try to write down as many as I can remember. But this night was like a quadruple feature of vivid stories: me on the bimah at a synagogue, lying on a large, leather-upholstered platform where a Torah had just been read (with a shard of wood as a yad); me being driven to an assembly by one of my special-needs students in the morning, telling him he’s early, dozing off, and not awakening until 5:30 in the afternoon with my parents talking in the next room of a house.

I have no idea what they mean. I had talked about Judaism and Hanukkah with my students earlier that day, so perhaps religion was on my mind, but there are also bits that have nothing to do with any of that.

Someday, five or 10 years from now, I’ll read all the dreams in the file I keep and see if they tell any story at all. In the meantime, I urge you to read about something called dream hacking in a Mashable article, “Dream Hacking at the Edge of Sleep,” by Chris Taylor. It’s my Sunday read.

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Is there going to be a stupidity vaccine, too? And will it work?

The coronavirus has revealed just how impatient Americans are — as if we didn’t know already.

As soon as lockdowns started easing, too many people went about their lives as if Covid had magically disappeared, only to get infected or infect others. Southern and western states looked at the disease as if it were a big-city, Northeastern and Midwestern problem, only to get hit with their own hotspots and hospital overflows.

Even now — now that we’ve passed 150,000 dead, now that the disease has pretty much affected every corner of America, now that it’s hammered professional sports teams and people under 30 and former presidential candidates — we’re still being stupid. And school will begin — presumably — in a few weeks.

Oh, but wait. We just started a Phase 3 clinical trial! A vaccine may be at hand! Everything can return to normal!

Not quite.

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Review: ‘One Good Turn’ by Witold Rybczynski

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I generally like the books of Witold Rybczynski. “City Life” was a fascinating history of urban development; “Waiting for the Weekend” was a brisk look at how we created the modern workweek. Though I wasn’t as impressed by “Last Harvest” or “Home: The Short History of an Idea,” they were readable, thorough, and filled with interesting tidbits.

So when I picked up “One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw,” I thought, how bad could it be? I mean, it’s a slim work – 151 pages, including many illustrations – and though the screwdriver itself might seem like a better topic for Rybczynski’s ally in explanation, engineering professor Henry Petroski (“The Evolution of Useful Things”), I figured that Rybczynski probably had a number of Bill Bryson-like anecdotes up his sleeve.

Well, I don’t want to say I was screwed, but “One Good Turn” was about as interesting as inserting a drill bit.

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What we may learn from reopening schools

Image from roomtodiscover.com.

O, the clamor …

First of all, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and many other countries got Covid-19 under control. (Sweden? Not so much.) They socially distanced. They wore masks. They did contact tracing when possible. They reacted quickly to hot spots. (They also have universal healthcare systems so people aren’t terrified of losing their life savings to a hospital stay. Wouldn’t that be nice?)

The United States, on the other hand

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It was the worst year ever

“Genseric’s Invasion of Rome” by Karl Bryullov. 455 was not a good year, at least for the Romans.

The Covid-19 pandemic. Economic loss. Murder hornets. The president retweeting Chuck Woolery.

2020 must be in the running for the worst year ever.

Still, according to a 2018 article in Science magazine, there are better contenders. The scientists interviewed in the piece suggest the worst year in history — certainly the beginning of the worst era — was the year 536.

Due to what is now believed to be a volcanic explosion in Iceland, the sun was dimmed by ash for more than a year, creating low temperatures and prompting crop failures. A few years later, bubonic plague broke out in the Byzantine Empire; up to half the population died. Famine struck Europe, the Near East, and Asia. Europe, in particular, didn’t recover for a century.

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Sunday read: When another plague was upon the land

Image from the National Museum of Health and Medicine via The Atlantic.

Gore Vidal used to refer to this country as the United States of Amnesia. We do forget so easily.

I was reminded of this the other day when, in a conversation with my mother, she mentioned how this isn’t the first time in her life that schools and public facilities had shut down in the face of a disease. When she was a child in the 1940s and ’50s, there was an outbreak of polio almost every year, and in reaction, authorities would close schools, swimming pools, and other gathering spots.

Polio was a terrifying disease. Though it could affect adults — Franklin D. Roosevelt was a famous victim, having become ill with what was believed to be polio at age 39 — the disease, formally known as poliomyelitis and often described as “infantile paralysis,” would generally afflict children. (Indeed, some medical experts have come to believe FDR had Guillain-Barre syndrome, not polio.)

In an article he wrote for The Conversation, author Carl Kurlander observes that, when the first epidemic hit in 1916, health workers would actually remove children from their homes and isolate them. After World War II, polio remained as frightening as ever. Philip Roth’s final novel, “Nemesis,” concerns a polio outbreak in his native Newark, N.J. Nobody wanted to risk their children getting the disease — and yet the number of afflicted rose each year into the early ’50s.

It wasn’t until a vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk that the panic diminished. Another vaccine, an oral version pioneered by Albert Sabin, helped wipe out polio worldwide. Last year, the World Health Organization said there were just 94 cases of wild polio in the world.

We will eventually beat back Covid-19. Billions of dollars are being spent on vaccine development, and countries are allowing accelerated timetables for testing. But until then, we’re limited to masks, social distancing, and diligent hygiene. It’s not great, but it’s better than nothing.

Read the story here.